In one scene, protagonist Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, of House Denzel) debates the plausibility of a white supremacist ever winning higher office. "America would never elect someone like David Duke," he says. Fast-forward towards the end of the film, in which a group of Klan members, led by Duke (then the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, who would run a failed campaign for President in 1988, and served in the Louisiana State House of Representatives from 1989 to 1992 — played here by Topher Grace) chanting a mantra of "America First."
Those winky, foreshadowing moments have creeped into so many (too many!) movies and TV shows since the November 2016 election. But a movie that casts Harry Belafonte as the survivor of a lynching, shows a cross burning, and weaves in real footage of white supremacists parading through Charlottesville, Virginia, doesn't need cheap Trump callbacks to stand as a disturbing reflection of the times we live in. If anything, those soundbites are the weakest links in what is one of Lee's strongest and most entertaining films.
That this will be based on true events is clear from the beginning, when we're warned in bold letters that "dis joint is based on some fucked up, fo real shit." It's an apt description for the wild story of how Ron and his partner, lapsed Jew Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), managed to go undercover inside the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan in 1970.
As the first Black cop in Colorado Springs, Ron has seen his fair share of casual racism. Deemed the Jackie Robinson of the department by his boss, he'll keeps his head down and tries to be the best at his job. No one will do him any favors.
With that in mind, Ron creates his own dream undercover assignment by calling up (BlacKkKlansman is one of several films by Black creators to play with "white voice" this year) the local Klan leaders and expressing interest in joining the organization. Enthused at the idea of a new recruit, they set a face-to-face meeting to deliver informational material. Knowing full well he cannot show up to a Klan rally, Ron enlists Flip to pose as him. Thus, the dual Ron Stallworth is born, one who talks like Ron and looks like Flip.
For this to work, the two have to learn from each other. Lee juxtaposes the Black and Jewish experience in a fascinating and revealing way. Both are hated by the Klan, but while Flip has had the luxury of avoiding grappling with his Jewish identity until his otherness was explicitly brought up (a Klansman insists he take a lie detector test to prove he's not Jewish), Ron has never been able to pass — until now. This explains why Ron can't quite understand how Flip can treat this as any other job. Isn't he Jewish himself? How can he listen to the offensive slurs and stereotypes and not take it personally?
Ultimately though, Driver gives one of the most introspective and intimate portrayals of what it means to be a Jewish and American, including the struggle to pledge allegiance to both of those identities simultaneously, an issue that's all the more timely given the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism in this country.
Ron's undercover work extends into his personal life, and his relationship with Colorado State Black Student Union president Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), whom he meets while on assignment to monitor a rally where Black Panther leader Kwame Ture has come to speak. A Black Power activist, she'd be horrified to learn about his day job. In fact, on the night they meet, she and her group get pulled over by some of Ron's white colleagues, who sexually harass her and threaten violence, one of the film's many parallels to current tensions. Still, their relationship is a welcome relief from the troubling events unfolding around them. Lee balances out the constant stream of abuse spit out by the Klan with joyous scenes celebrating Black identity, like one in which Ron and Patrice share a dance in a bar after her difficult encounter with the police.
That duality between white supremacists and Black activists prevails throughout the film. Lee cuts between meetings of the two groups, highlighting the former's vile intolerance and the latter's words of empowerment and pride. The way each side treats the women in their midst is also at odds: Patrice is shown to be independent and intelligent, in full control of her actions and her beliefs. The racists, on the other hand, use white women as props: victims to be protected from the uncontrollable lusts of Black and Jewish men; breeding machines who can ensure the genetic future of the white race; but mostly, they pick up the beer cans, and carry out the group's dirty work.
Washington excels at playing the straight man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, toggling between simmering rage and hilarious incredulity during his many phone calls with Duke, who lists the many ways he can tell the difference between a white man and a Black man by the way they enunciate. There's no desire to humanize Klan-members here. With the exception of Grace as Duke (a role the former That 70s Show star takes on with glee — the Topher Gracessance is real), they are all shown to be bumbling idiots wielding dangerous rhetoric (and often weapons), and made all the more terrifying as a result. They are both the antagonists and the comic relief. Lee uses humor to diffuse deeply upsetting situations, a technique that also serves to hammer home the idea that sometimes the only thing protecting Flip and Ron from violent harm is a well-placed barb.
The end result is a film that deftly melds wit and social commentary, compounded by a horrifying end crescendo that's impossible to look away from, and stays with you long after you've left the theater.